Riders ‘thrilled’ to have LB Deon Lacey back after COVID-19 false positive

Photo courtesy: Saskatchewan Roughriders

For just a moment, fans of the Saskatchewan Roughriders and the CFL at large were holding their breath.

Riders linebacker Deon Lacey, a prized free agent acquisition, had arrived at training camp late, practicing Sunday and Monday before a conspicuous absence Tuesday. The team remained tight-lipped on his status, barely uttering the phrase COVID protocol, but it was clear the linebacker had recorded a positive test for the virus.

After more than a year and a half of waiting for football to return, was this the canary in the coal mine that would bring the whole thing crashing down?

While apocalyptic paranoia has become the trademark of CFL fandom over the last little while, on this issue fans can now relax. Lacey returned to Riders training camp Thursday and while head coach Craig Dickenson wouldn’t elaborate on the situation, he too viewed it with some relief.

“All I can say is he is out of COVID protocol and practicing and we are thrilled to have him out there,” Dickenson said after Lacey’s return to practice.

The linebacker himself was a man of few words, but shared that the two-day quarantine was the result of a false positive test and the ensuing health and safety protocols.

“I guess it was just a mistake with the test, so I followed the protocol to make sure everything was okay,” Lacey explained. “Everything checked out fine and now I’m back on the field.”

The CFL announced on Thursday the league’s first reported COVID numbers. Over the course of the pre-training camp period and in-country quarantine, a total of 6,000 tests were issued to players and Tier 1 personnel with only 10 coming back positive. Five of those individuals recorded their positive test prior to traveling to Canada and were asked to stay home, while the other five tested positive on arrival.

The CFL does not release the names or teams of those in protocol, though it notes some were false positives. Lacey is the first player with a positive test to be identified.

While it was concerning for fans and club officials alike, Lacey himself was not worried about the situation.

“I was fine. There was nothing major, so I knew I was going to be back,” he said dismissively.

The six-foot-two, 225-pound linebacker initially signed with the Riders in May 2020 after spending the previous three seasons in the NFL, but he never got the chance to don green and white last year because the CFL season was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

After opting out of his CFL contract, Lacey played five games for the Buffalo Bills in 2020 as a COVID replacement. He returned to the Riders in the offseason and figures to factor heavily in a linebacking corps rendered thin by the losses of 2019 starters Solomon Elimimian and Cameron Judge, as well as the Achilles tear of free agent signing Larry Dean.

“Deon brings great physicality to any team he plays on. We coached him when we were in Edmonton and he is a strong, tough, fly around, hit’ya sort of football player. He brings great physicality and also great energy,” Dickenson said about the star’s return to the CFL.

“We’re thrilled to have him, the guy loves football, he’s done everything possible to get out there and play. He brings a different level of energy to our defence and to our team and we couldn’t be happier than to have him out on that field.”

Lacey first signed with Edmonton in 2014, playing in 54 games over three seasons and recording 114 defensive tackles, 68 special teams tackles, seven sacks, four forced fumbles, three interceptions and one touchdown. He was named a West Division All-Star his first year and helped Edmonton win the Grey Cup in 2015.

After leaving Canada, Lacey spent two seasons with the Buffalo playing in 32 games and making 16 tackles. In 2019, he played 16 games with the Miami Dolphins, recording four tackles.

Though his triumphant return was somewhat delayed, the 30-year-old is ready to make a comeback from the quarantine in a big way.

“I really got a good chance to get my feet wet today with the pads on. Taking my time, rolling into it because I had the COVID protocol deal,” Lacey said. “Hopefully they let me go full throttle so I can show these guys what I can really do.”

A relieved Rider Nation has similar hopes.

J.C. Abbott is a University of British Columbia graduate and high school football coach. He covers the CFL, B.C. Lions, CFL Draft and the three-down league's Global initiative.